Inside the Collection

Australia’s first female electrical engineer: Florence McKenzie’s life of service

Electrical Engineering Diploma, awarded to Miss Florence Violet Wallace
Powerhouse Museum Collection object K50. Gift of Florence Violet McKenzie, 1976.

To mark this year’s Engineering Week, I decided to feature Florence Violet Wallace, aka Florence McKenzie or Mrs Mac, a 1923 graduate of Sydney Technical College who later donated her diploma to the Museum. She was also a path-breaker, teacher, author, lobbyist and wartime leader, a woman who foresaw a need, set out to address it boldly and selflessly, and did so with great success.

Born in 1890, Wallace attended Sydney Girls High School and spent a successful year studying science at the University of Sydney. The new field of radio, in that first ‘wireless’ age, became a passion, and she sought to study at the Tech instead. That put her is a bind, as she couldn’t enrol until she found relevant employment. Showing admirable initiative, she set up a radio shop, apprenticed herself to the business, and contracted to carry out electrical work.

Photograph of Florence Wallace c 1923.
Florence Wallace c 1923.

A year after graduating, Wallace married fellow student Cecil McKenzie. He also ventured into a new field, transforming cities by installing huge neon advertising signs for the Scanlan Electric Company. Within a few years that company introduced to our cities another new communication technology, the ‘electric newspaper’, with rolling text lit up by 1200 light bulbs.

Sadly, Florence’s only child was stillborn. A few years later she set up the Electrical Association for Women (Australia), through which she taught women to use electrical appliances. She wrote the EAW Cookery Book for women, The Electric Imps for children, and many articles about electricity. She also joined the Australian Women’s Flying Club and began teaching its members Morse code.

Florence had been a young adult during World War I, and that conflict must have influenced her thoughts and attitudes. When she heard Neville Chamberlain proclaim that there would be ‘peace in our time’, she realised it was time for citizens to prepare for war. Not one to take half measures, she established the Australian Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps and trained 1000 women in Morse code and semaphore before war was declared, and many more afterwards. She also designed their military-style uniform: pine green serge skirt, jacket and forage cap, with brown tie, gloves and shoes.

Not content with this unofficial effort, Florence lobbied the navy and air force to set up women’s services. Although she met considerable resistance, her lobbying led to the establishment of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service. Both groups made significant contributions during the war, including sending and receiving telegraph messages and training thousands of Allied servicemen in signalling. In 1941 Florence became an honorary officer in the WAAAF, and in 1950 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Through all those years of sadness, hard work and commitment to her country, she kept the diploma as a reminder of her early achievement – and of a very different world, with few opportunities for women outside the domestic sphere. She retained her interest in science and technology throughout her long life. It is thus very fitting that she chose to donate the diploma to this Museum, which was located alongside Sydney Technical College when she was a student and which aimed (as it still does) to help students understand their changing world.

Written by Debbie Rudder, Curator.

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